Lion Of Babylon, by Davis Bunn

28 04 2011

Christmas found me halfway through a free online book by Mary Shelly, called The Last Man, a story about how a plague wipes out the entire human population of Earth.  At least, I think that’s what happens, though I haven’t finished it, yet.  Shelly was, by the way, the same famous writer who wrote the classic story of Frankenstein.  When I read stories written by women, I generally expect a romance, or some melodramatic tale of a destructive relationship.  I suspect that Mary Shelly had a brutal childhood.

Christmas rescued me from this madness with a tall stack of books, which managed to last just up to my birthday, when I was gloriously bestowed with another tall stack of books.  Needless to say, I like books.  Specifically, I like novels written by Christians.  I considered that I could start a web log on the subject of Christian fiction and actually have plenty of writing material to work with.  Moreover, I might actually be something of an expert on the subject, at least until a major earthquake buries me under these tomes.  However, I realized that I haven’t really earned that right, because I have yet to really write a book of my own.  Criticism is so unbelievably cheap and easy, whereas a lovingly crafted novel is the work of much suffering.   This blog that you read was meant to be timeless.  I wanted anyone to be able to find any page of it at any time, whether tomorrow or twenty years from now, and find it equally relevant (or irrelevant) as the day it was written.  Book criticism is not timeless, and it lacks that certain abstractness about life that I aim to discuss.  Nevertheless, I make an exception here.

My reading marathon ended with Travis Thrasher’s book, Solitary, which must certainly be the single most depressing novel I have ever read.  It’s supposed to be a young adult fiction, but I can only assume it was meant to reduce the world population by pushing suicidal teens over the edge.  The ending was a punch in the gut.  On that sour note, I was to return to The Last Man to see how the whole world dies, when my wife received a free, unpublished novel in the mail.  Apparently, Bethany House noticed her purchasing habits through the local bookstore and decided that she might like an action thriller novel, unasked for, free of charge.  Bethany House doesn’t know my wife.  If the cover doesn’t have an Amish person on it, then she probably hasn’t read it.  Needless to say, she was the single greatest giver of my reading pleasure these last few months.

Thanks to Bethany House for the free book.  Of course, they were probably hoping for some free advertising out of it.  At the least, I’m sure they wanted us to tell our…friends, whatever those are.  It occurs to me that this post was about the closest I could come to paying the $14.99 worth of goods and services needed to cover the cost of it, now that I’ll never need to actually buy a copy.  So, here’s the first post I ever got paid to write, in a manner of speaking.

Davis Bunn’s Lion Of Babylon was a fun read.  I would rank it somewhere in the top twenty percent of Christian books I’ve read.  The setting is Iraq, and three Americans have been kidnapped, possibly for religious reasons, but no ransom has been demanded.  Their intended rescuer, Marc Royce, is an ex-intelligence officer, fired for putting his dying wife above his job.  For some reason, his former boss wanted him back.  Perhaps it was because Marc was a personal friend of one of the victims.  Here you have a guy with no recent experience in espionage, unable to speak the local language, getting dropped into a hostile territory to find some people, without a single lead.  If that weren’t enough, some unknown number of American officials would do whatever they could to prevent this rescue.  Through most of the book, Marc manages to save probably over a hundred people, at least, from children to a very important imam.  In fact, he seems to be doing just about everything except the one mission he originally set out to do.  Doing so earns him the respect of the Iraqi people, who call him a lion, their term for a hero.  There’s more at stake to this plot than the rescue of a few Americans.  The entire nation of Iraq stands to crumble to Iranian control if Marc fails.

The over-all feel of the book is that it starts out with a sort of cloak-and-dagger intrigue, but it ends up as an action-packed gunslinger.  The intrigue unfolds to something not terribly complex.  It wasn’t the book’s strongest point.  Setting and characterization were its dominant strengths.  For an American to write a plot with an Iraqi setting takes a certain amount of research, and Bunn did well enough to convince a reader that he had probably been there, himself.  If I didn’t get a glimpse into the post-war life in Iraq, then the book did an excellent job of tricking me into thinking that I did.  Bunn’s characters were easy to like, and, except for the protagonist, were utterly human.  He tried to make Marc a realistic personality, but it’s hard to have a character save a nation and still seem like the sort of person I might have met in church on any given Sunday.  I liked this book.  It felt genuinely Christian.

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So there’s your fifteen dollar post.  I would hate to think that anyone might accuse me of getting very much steeped in commercialism, though.  I mean, I would certainly write a post in order to get a free book, but I wouldn’t stoop to loading my blog with advertisements.  I’m not doing this for the money, after all.  Well, I wouldn’t over-do it on the ads, anyway.  I’m not advertising a book.  I just thought I’d happen to mention it.

Incidentally, the ISBN number is 978-0-7642-0905-5, available July 2011.

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If any publishers out there want to send me another free book to review, send them to…eh, well, take a wild guess.  This isn’t a commercial web site after all.  It’s not like I’ve sold myself out, or anything.


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Rattlesnake Mountain

18 04 2011

We were all there in the open field at recess watching James’ dad get blown to bits.  James was even there with us.  Of course, we had no idea what we were looking at.  It was one of two plane crashes I remember seeing from that same playground during my time in elementary school.  The small aircraft hit close to the peak, igniting a fire that spread and rose until it engulfed the top.  What is fire to a little kid?  What is tragedy?

A few years ago, I noticed my goldfish staring in awe at a candle I had placed near the fishbowl.  Where, in nature, do fish confront fire?  All of the beasts in the forest know it well.  At the first scent of smoke, the bees start packing up the honey.  The deer flee for their lives.  Even the snakes head for the water.  All of the animals of the forest know what fire is, and they fear it dreadfully.  The fish don’t have a clue.

There we were, like a pond full of goldfish, staring at a fire, and somewhere in that fire was our classmate’s father.  We didn’t have a clue.  I remember when he was called out of the classroom.  I remember the next day, staring up at Rattlesnake Mountain, with its ashen gray cap, and freckle-faced Brent exclaiming, “Dude!  That was James’ father!”  He kept saying it until it finally hit home with us.  The teacher may have told us all at the same time, but I don’t remember.  It was a hard thing to grasp.

James was rare for being a black kid in a nearly all-white school.  He was one of only about three non-whites I think I saw in the seven years I was there, five non-whites, if you count the faculty.  He was extremely quiet and well-mannered.  So much more dramatic the change when he began biting and kicking his fellow students for no reason at all (I thought).  We were only second-graders.  I had no idea what it was like to lose my father.  All I knew was that my classmate was behaving like a rabid animal.  Shortly after that, James moved away, and we never saw him again.

And then I had my own Rattlesnake Mountain, that same year.

Christmas came, and I got my very own Starscream Transformer robot toy.  I remember it well, and I remember how it came with two left hands and a missile that broke as I was detaching it from the forms.  I recall the evening when I sat on my father’s lap, and he helped me put the decals on the toy.  He had the sticker for the shiny gold eyes grasped in a pair of tweezers.  He hesitated, he breathed deeply, and then he gave me the tweezers and set me down on the couch and wandered off.  I had no idea that I was witnessing my forty-two-year-old father have a heart attack.  Once I finished the decals myself, I wandered about, looking for my parents, when my older siblings informed me that they had gone to the hospital.  My mom came home late and alone.

The next day was business as usual.  I thought my dad was going to die, and there I was in school, doing what I did every day, helpless in my circumstances.  I don’t remember why, but I found myself biting and kicking my classmates like some rabid animal.  Yes, now I could relate to James.  I was horrified at my own actions, watching myself transform like a young Jekyll and Hyde story.  The teacher knew something was wrong at home.  She pinned a note to my clothes and admonished me to leave it there until my mom took it off.  I don’t know why, but I wore the note all the way home, without trying to read it.

The next day, my mother kept me home from school and took me to visit my father in the hospital, instead.  That was all it took to make me a happy well-mannered kid again, seeing him alive and in good spirits.  My first day back at school, the teacher pinned another note to my clothes, thanking my mother for whatever it was that she had done.  “Now, don’t take this one off,” she said, “This is a good note.”

In second grade, my parents were enormous giants to me.  The prospect of my dad dying was like the prospect of God dying.  This one who should have been too big to fall, this all-providing source of survival was at death’s door.  I can well imagine how Christ’s disciples might have panicked at the death of their rabbi, a surrogate father, but more, something like Father God in the flesh, too big to fall, dying like a mortal.  One can see Peter’s fight/flight response, cutting off a servant’s ear one moment, and denying Christ the next, having witnessed the death and destruction of the man who always had all of the answers, the one who could not be touched.  There he was, the apparent source of life and health, bleeding on a cross.  Christ’s mountain was called the Skull, but it was the place where the snake had bitten him on the heel, symbolically.  It was his Rattlesnake Mountain.

It recalls to mind the various faces of the September 11 attacks, all of those close shots of people hanging out of windows to escape the fire.  Those must have been someone’s fathers and mothers.  I can only imagine the horror of having watched it happen to a loved one.  Much worse, to have seen the face of one clearly, on a newspaper or on television.  When I watched the tsunami roll across Japan, it was like the plane crash at Rattlesnake mountain, like a goldfish staring at a flame.  It was mesmerizing, but it was nothing personal to me.  I feel like I should sympathize more.  I know I would feel much different if that tragedy came to me.

Deep in the recesses of my mind, I wonder if we’re all destined to feel the pain of those victims.  We’ll feel their pain, or we’ll feel that pain.  I pray to God that the pain is only sympathetic.  If that’s all I pray, then I probably am not sympathetic.  And, if I am cold, then perhaps the hour has come for God to break me, that I may bleed, and, having bled, I may learn to feel again.

The Ultimate End of the United States

14 04 2011

At the front of the chamber of the House of Representatives, on either side of the national flag, are two symbols of power, known as fasces.  These are relief sculptures of the image of an axe embedded in a bundle of sticks and tied together with a strap.  For those who know history, this comes as an obvious reference to the old Roman Empire.  Wherever Caesar went, the fasces were carried before him as a symbol of power.  In the image, here, is also another symbol of power derived from the Roman legacy.  Just to the left and in front of the fasces is a mace with the image of an eagle atop it.  Hitler was in love with this symbolism and used it often, but what he did with it is not relevant, here.  These may be fascist symbols, or they may not be, depending on what meaning we ascribe to them, but one thing they do reference is Rome.

The United States is currently the oldest existing democracy in the world.  This representative democracy was, in fact, modeled after the old Roman design, and for good reason.  The Romans were the first to successfully establish a government that actually served the people.  The ancient Greeks tried democracy, but their efforts were short-lived.  Prior to the Romans, every government had existed for itself.  The citizenry existed to serve the government, and not the other way around.  A king was, essentially, the most successful thief and the most powerful warlord.  He took from the people, and then he took the people.  The people had their property, but the king owned both the people and their property.  Rome turned the entire system on its head.  One can read in the First Book of the Maccabees how the Jews were amazed that a city-state across the sea was managed by consent of the people.  Such a thing was stunning in its uniqueness.  The people of Rome were actually quite content with their way of life, especially compared with nearly all previous civilizations.  Therefore, the Roman model had to be the best possible choice for the creation of a new and happy nation that was to be called the United States of America.

France followed closely after.  Nation after nation followed in the footsteps of the United States.  This experiment has proved successful, at least thus far.  It is still a young nation, and we would like to keep it that way, but all people are mortals, and everything they make is destined to die.  We do well to know our weaknesses.  Democracy may have many moral weaknesses, but only two of them are truly mortal.

The first and greatest weakness of democracy is the tendency for the strongest political leaders to become stronger, while the weakest leaders become even weaker.  In the case of Rome, as with us, the strongest person in government is always the head of the executive branch.  We know him as the president.  They knew him as Caesar.  Our founders attempted to counter this by giving most of the powers of governance to the legislative branch.  It was a nice gesture, at best.  Congress makes a preferable seat of power, because it divides that power among many people.  No single person has enough of it to dominate the whole country.  The most powerful branch, in this case, is also the weakest.  It’s a delicate balance.  Everyone in power has that power because they strove for it.  We can guarantee that they will continue to fight for more power.  Therefore, the people with the most power will continue to take it from people with less of that power.  The legislature, as a whole, may be more powerful than the presidency, at least initially, but the president has far more power than any member of Congress.  The same was true for Caesar.  Consequently, both Caesar and the president naturally tend toward acquiring more power.  Responsibilities originally assigned to the legislature gradually migrate over to the executive.  For example, the act of declaring war, once a legislative function, has given way to “police action,” otherwise known as the president sending troops anywhere to fight for any reason he wants.  Eventually, the president could become powerful enough to remain in power indefinitely, and he might find that he can do exactly as he chooses with his nation.  Rome turned this course over hundreds of years.  Nazi Germany did it in a matter of a few years.  Most Middle-Eastern “democracies” started out this way.  When it happens, whether it changes over the course of several terms, or only one, we will find ourselves as Rome, engaged in expansion, foreign wars, and pretty much all manner of insanity associated with self-aggrandizement, the symptom of someone’s bloated ego.  The nation may not be a kingdom, but it will behave as one.

The second weakness of democracy, the one that actually might make the nation cease to exist, is the tendency to spend itself into oblivion.  Rome fell to the tyranny of the imperial Caesar, but it continued to exist for several years before ultimately crumbling under the weight of its own debt.  That is the hallmark of democracy, unfortunately.  We can see it everywhere we look.  Some nations rushed into it.  Others took their time.  All of them are headed in the same direction, and all of them have the same destination.  Rome died the slow death of depleting funds.  Government suffered from what might be called the grab-bag mentality.  It’s our own hand, even now.  Everyone wants as much as they can get.  No one wants to give more than they must.  Cutting taxes looks good.  Creating programs looks good.  No democracy ever seems to shrink its role, and no democracy ever does naught but slide further into debt.  The third-party payer weakness can be seen in the insurance industry, driving up the cost of health care, and it can be seen in the loan industry, driving up the cost of homes.  Wherever people are detached from their own expenditures, costs are sure to soar.

Even beyond the money issue, we have the problem of diminishing priorities.  Every priority that we have, even our highest priorities, are hurt by every new priority we add.  Each time we add an objective, all previous objectives become a little more neglected as a result.  Hence, even if the national defense is still our highest priority, the addition of environmentalism takes away from our ability to defend ourselves.  On a personal scale, we might consider the automobile: if we want it fast and relatively safe, then we run on gasoline.  If we want it to burn cleanly, then we run it on methane, but then it is less safe and less strong.  Occasionally, people kill themselves while pumping natural gas, while gasoline rarely causes injury during fueling.  We could make the car more efficient by making it smaller and lighter, but then, again, it has a weaker engine, and it gets deadly in a collision.  Each new priority added weakens all preexisting priorities.  As a nation gets older, it continues to add priorities.  Each priority costs something, whether money, human resources, natural resources, or just attention.

We need to be aware of our weakness as a democracy, and we need to vote accordingly.  This means we need to keep our debt in check.  We absolutely need to curb our innate tendency to always add new programs.  We’ve got to focus on the fundamentals, the things that government must provide.  Lastly, we need to vigilantly reign-in the presidency.  This great experiment will eventually come to an end, if only because it was made by humans, but it doesn’t have to end today, or tomorrow, next year or next century.  It doesn’t have to, but it will if we don’t learn from history.

Modernists’ Angels

5 04 2011

Oh, but the modernist can accept angels, only on his own terms.  Robin Parrish, a current writer of Christian fiction, or, I should say, writer of fiction marketed as Christian (according to him),  wrote a novel called Nightmare, essentially a fictionalized telling of various known ghost stories from around the continental United States.  What, at first, appears to be a very pre-modern plot about angels, demons, ghosts and other paranormal phenomena, ends in a climax of an entirely modernistic nature.  In his story, men have learned how to harvest and bottle the human soul.  All of this requires special materials, special machinery, several hundred life-support systems and a full lexicon of spirit-controlling hieroglyphs.  In essence, he took the magic of the supernatural and brought it under the dominion of everyday science, though it be a purely imaginary one.  Somehow, when the world of angels and demons falls into the realm of the test tube and the litmus paper, it ceases to be the very thing that made it special: it ceases to be magic.

The modernist will forever reject the supernatural, until he finds a way to manipulate it and control it, just like so many other things.  Then, not only will he believe it, but he will state that the existence of such things are an absolute fact.  He will not be reverent of them, and he will teach us to be equally irreverent.  Fortunately, the supernatural lies forever outside of his grasp.  Spiritual things are not physical, therefore they cannot be studied as physical things.  A permanent barrier leaves the modernist in ignorant bliss, while protecting us from yet another technology that threatens to wipe us off the face of the earth.

Occasionally, we may meet a student of public broadcasting who will tell us that the Bible could not have been accurately copied for thousands of years.  He tells us that we accept it blindly, on faith, that we call it inerrant simply because we want to believe that it is so.  The quickest way to shut him up is to tell him that there is a field of science called textual criticism, whereby the oldest codices, actual thousand-year-old parchment, are compared with each other to determine what the original text actually said.  Considering that our recent translations are based on that very same science, he doesn’t have much to stand on.  He puts his faith in science.  More to the point, he puts his faith in processes subdued by mortal men.

Magic can be seen simply as technology that is not understood or fully grasped by the human mind.  The assumption is that it actually cannot be contained.  Take a person from a thousand years ago and go on a walk through a field just as the pop-up sprinklers activate.  To him, that’s magic.  Mushrooms mysteriously sprout from the ground and begin watering the plants.  Such a person would either be struck dumb or run in terror.  The monitor in front of your face, the ability to talk with people anywhere in the world, the chance to board a flying airship and travel the world, such things are magic…no, they’re just technology.  Ah, but if I could say the magic word and turn you into a toad, now that would be magic.

The problem with magic, real magic, is that not even the person wielding it has a complete grasp on what it is she’s doing.  The witch uses superhuman powers, she thinks, but she does not reconcile the fact that she is only human, and she does not understand her work well enough to think of it as technology.  If it seems like magic to her, then it’s because it really isn’t her magic.  It’s the magic of a demon.  If it’s yours, then it isn’t magic to you.  If you think you wield magic, then you aren’t really the one wielding it, sucker.

On the other hand, the modernist wishes to turn all things into technology, or else reject them.  Hence, the modernist would take that which is not his and possess it.  That which he could not possess, he would reject as mere myth.  Here we have the original sin repeated in Technicolor.  The domain of God is…well, he has no domain, in the modern mind.  Is the spirit the possession of God?  If so, then it does not exist, and if not, then we can manipulate it, harvest it and do what we want with it.  That is to say that a modernist can deal with angels only if he can find a way to make an angelic handgun and hold them for ransom.  So long as he is helpless in the world of the spirit, he is certain that the spirit does not exist.  Miracles follow the same line of thinking.  Miracles that come from God are fake, to the modernist, but miracles that come from men are real.  The only difference is in the possession.  God gave us the whole earth and everything on it to subdue and claim dominion.  Yet, we would have what God has not given us, or, having failed at that, we would reject the very existence of the thing that we cannot accept, the thing that we cannot have.

If you could put a demon in a bottle and sell it at the dollar store for a buck, then this world might believe in demons.  If the demon could put you in a bottle and sell you at the market for half a farthing, then you only need medication.  It’s all in the wielding of power.

This world does have its own version of the angel, though.  It’s called the outer-space alien.  In it, you have an intelligent creature from without, influencing us with power that we do not have, formed in an image that we have not learned, but the alien creature lives by technology, and that technology can be learned.  The difference between the alien and the angel is in the potential to subdue.  It’s all in the wielding of power.  The modernist can accept the alien, because the modernist can have some hope of assimilating its magic and subduing it.  No such hope exists over angels.

The modernist is obsessed with power.  The modernist does not want a God that he must fear.  He wants the whole Garden of Eden, its forbidden fruit, the angels and God, himself.  What he can’t own, what he can’t hope to own, he would rather pretend does not exist.

Hat tip to Nina Stone.